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Copyright © 1997 - 2001
Lichtenstein Creative Media.

 

 

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Last modified:
August 13, 2001

 The Infinite Mind featured in the Sunday New York Times
Arts and Leisure section, August 12, 2001


August 12, 2001
On Radio, a Journey Through the Mind

By ANDY MEISLER

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a standard reference work for mental health professionals, defines Dysthymic Disorder as "a chronically depressed mood that occurs for most of the day more days than not for at least two years."

From his office on West 36th Street in Manhattan, Bill Lichtenstein, the creator and executive producer of the weekly public radio program "The Infinite Mind," got increasingly enthusiastic recently as he riffed on how the syndrome could be the perfect focus of an episode.

"We'd want to know what it's like to live with dysthymia," he said. "Which brings up the question: What happens if we take all these people and treat them? Would you, if you were dysthymic, take a pill - or undergo a cognitive therapy or whatever - that would guarantee you'd be happy for the rest of your life?

"So now you've got to get someone - a well-known observer of culture - to do an essay. To talk about this dialectic: How is it that some people feel that it's great to be happy all the time while some people seek the misery of life? So let's find a comedian who builds an act around being depressed all the time, and ask him or her: What's that all about? "

And then there's the Anne Sexton thing. People say, `If we'd had effective antidepressants in Anne Sexton's time, we wouldn't have had her great poetry.' The other side says, `Yes, but she would have been alive and writing a lot longer.'

"So I say: Let's find some suffering poets! And ask them how they work and how they feel."

In the media mainstream, explorations of human psychology tend toward relationship makeovers and journeys into the minds of serial killers. But "The Infinite Mind," a three-year-old program that focuses on the nature of thought, the science of the brain and mental health - and the subtle, often unfathomable interactions between them - is not afraid to probe deeper. And later this month an hourlong installment on dysthymia will join 117 previous shows on topics like habit, shyness, clutter and hoarding, the insanity defense, altruism, courage and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Sure, it's a complicated subject," Mr. Lichtenstein, 44, said, "but isn't it our job as journalists to take complicated subjects and make them understandable and interesting? That's the very reason we created the show."

"The Infinite Mind" is broadcast on 168 public radio stations to an audience that averages around 500,000. It appears in wildly disparate time slots; WNYC-AM (820) in New York currently runs it at 7 a.m. on Sundays. Mr. Lichtenstein and his five-person staff - which includes his wife, June Peoples, as his senior producer and chief deputy - execute their idiosyncratic format on a budget of slightly more than $20,000 a show.

The show's host is Dr. Fred Goodwin, 65, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health and a leading expert on manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. Dr. Goodwin handles the show's in- studio interviews as well as all introductions and segues. Before he joined the show, he had no radio experience.

"One of the reasons I took the job was to let the public listen to a psychiatrist who didn't fit the stereotype - who actually sounded like a normal person," he said.

John Hockenberry, the writer and NBC correspondent who has contributed dozens of commentaries and essays for "The Infinite Mind," said: "Dr. Fred wouldn't pass an audition, wouldn't even get a callback, at any broadcast entity I've ever worked for. But on this show he does a tremendous job."

Indeed, the soft-spoken, empathetic Dr. Goodwin - he often concludes his interviews with a therapeutic-sounding "I'm afraid we'll have to stop" - manages to keep himself and his interview subjects relatively jargon-free.

"One of the interesting things we've learned doing the show," Mr. Lichtenstein said, "is that the top people in the field, including Nobel Prize winners, seem to have gotten where they are partly via their ability to explain their work effectively to the general public."

In the hoarding and clutter episode, Dr. Goodwin intently questioned a clinician who treats patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a researcher examining the genetic and neurobiological underpinnings of the problem - after listeners heard from an elderly woman whose house had been taken over by decades of magazines and newspapers. There was also a segment about a successful advertising executive who had to face his fears and clear out his apartment before he brought his newly adopted child home.

In the episode titled "Courage," a financial analyst related how he had reflexively risked his life to try to save a couple who had fallen into a nearly frozen lake; Dr. Goodwin talked to a Polish-born Jew who was hidden from the Nazis by a Catholic peasant woman and has become an authority on the sociology of courage and altruism; and interviews were done with members of a New York Fire Department rescue company and a researcher who is exploring the psychological bases of courage and altruism and their siblings, sensation-seeking and criminal aggression. Mr. Hockenberry, a paraplegic since his teens, contributed an essay in which he bemoaned being congratulated for having the "courage" to proceed with life in a wheelchair.

One theme that runs through "The Infinite Mind" is that those with mental illnesses and neurological disorders experience suffering and social stigma - and fascinating, often unexpectedly advantageous changes.

This can be traced to Mr. Lichtenstein's own experience. Born and raised in the Boston area, he received a graduate degree from the Columbia School of Journalism in 1979 and by his mid-20's was producing segments for "20/20," "Nightline" and other ABC news programs.

In 1986, when Mr. Lichtenstein was working as a producer and director for a short-lived late-night television series called "Jimmy Breslin's People," he began having paranoid thoughts and delusions, including the conviction that the F.B.I had him under surveillance and that he was receiving messages through his television set.

Friends and co-workers convinced him that he needed to be hospitalized. After several incorrect diagnoses, he was identified as a manic depressive and placed on the proper medication.

"So I said to myself, `Well, now I can explain to my friends what was going on,' " Mr. Lichtenstein said. " `That I have manic depression, but now I feel much better.' As if that would explain things. And then the phone just stopped ringing. I couldn't get a callback. People I'd worked with for six, seven years, with whom I'd been through war zones as a journalist, just stopped returning my calls."

The strain of joblessness, Mr. Lichtenstein said, made his mood swings worse and complicated the task of getting his illness under control. He was hospitalized several more times; by 1990 he was supporting himself as an office temp.

With the help of a local support group for people with manic depression, he managed to regroup. Reviving a long-held ambition, he formed an independent production company, Lichtenstein Creative Media.

Working out of his apartment, he started raising money for a series of public radio documentaries on subjects he felt had received grossly inadequate coverage: manic depression, schizophrenia and depression. They were well received and won numerous awards; he met Dr. Goodwin while producing the program on manic depression. By 1998, with money from various private and corporate foundations - including several unrestricted grants from pharmaceutical companies - he was able to launch "The Infinite Mind."

Although produced in association with WNYC, which contributes studio time and other services, "The Infinite Mind" is not affiliated with either National Public Radio or Public Radio International, the two major suppliers of public radio programming. The show is distributed free by satellite to any radio station that wants it.

This means, Mr. Lichtenstein said, that he maintains editorial independence. It also means that "The Infinite Mind" receives far less promotion than programs like "Car Talk," "This American Life" or "Prairie Home Companion."

Still, he said, the show is well enough established that he and his team are contemplating both TV and book versions. And he doesn't see the show running out of ideas anytime soon.

"I don't see any sort of end game," he said, non-dysthymically. "The more subjects we do, the more subjects are revealed to us."

Andy Meisler is a freelance television producer and writer.

(c) 2001 The New York Times Company

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